(Contributor: Surya Manavalan)
What is in census data depends, of course, on the questions the census asks, and the instructions it gives to census enumerators about what kinds of answers to accept and how to record them.
One of the things the U.S. census has tallied has been the racial composition of the population. The history of racial categories in the census (like the history of ideas about race itself) is a bit of a convoluted story. It has reflected both concerns about race and the changing ethnic background of the U.S. population.
Figure 1. Racial categories in the U.S. census over time.
As Figure 1 shows, white and black have been the most consistent categories; the other terms reflect shifts in immigration and in ideas about race. “Indian” in the census referred to Native Americans, not Asians from the Indian subcontinent. The appearance of larger numbers of Chinese immigrants (beginning during California Gold Rush of 1848) and later immigrants from Japan is also reflected in the racial categories. (There had been people of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian descent before, but it wasn’t until about this time period, that they and other races began to be accounted for in the census. Some might say that the overall awareness of these peoples at the time was increasing.
The story of “mulatto” (a term for a person of mixed African and European origin) is perhaps the most convoluted one. The category of “mulatto” first appeared in 1850. In the 1890 census, after the emancipation of slaves, some white Americans in power decided it was increasingly necessary to differentiate between “full-blooded” African Americans and what they called Quadroons, Octoroons or just straight Mulattoes. A Quadroon referred to someone who was a quarter black and three quarters white. An Octoroon referred to someone who was one eighth black.
Figure 2. Excerpt from the instructions from the 1890 census, provided for the census enumerators. (Instructions from the US Census Bureau website, https://www.census.gov/).
A prominent Senator of the time, Joseph Underwood, put forth the idea of tabulating the “degree of removal from pure white and black races,” probably based on the work of a racial theorist Josiah Nott. Nott wanted census data in order to show that mixed-race people had poor fertility and short lives and to develop life insurance tables. This odd differentiation of people lasted only for one census; in the next census, not only “Quadroon” and “Octoroon” but also “Mulatto” were dropped. The term “Mulatto” came back for the 1920 census, oddly enough. But after that, it was never used again.
In the 1920 census, there were also new categories for “Hindu” (meaning South Asian Indian), Filipino, and Korean.
Figure 3. Excerpt from the instructions from the 1920 census, provided for the census enumerators. (Instructions from the US Census Bureau website, https://www.census.gov/).
Since 2000, the census has allowed people to self-identify their race and to report more than one race.
Bennett, Claudette. “Racial Categories Used in the Decennial Censuses, 1790 to the Present.” Government Information Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, 2000, pp. 161–180. doi:10.1016/s0740-624x(00)00024-1.
United States Congress, Census, and Department of Interior. Instructions to Enumerators. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890.
Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. Instructions to Enumerators. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919.